Coronavirus in South Korea: How the crisis is eroding society’s privacy and freedom for the ‘greater good’.
Personal privacy and freedom are ideals that stand at the forefront of Western values, above all else. To challenge a person’s individualism in the West is viewed as a metaphorical castration.
However, in a time of global crisis, some have argued and demonstrated that a portion of a person’s privacy has to be sacrificed for the betterment of the nation at large. COVID-19 is as much a global crisis as any. And South Korea has proven that in order to suppress and control the virus, individual freedom and privacy has to be significantly eroded.
South Korea, as of 12th April, has experienced just over 10,500 cases and 214 deaths as a result of COVID-19, only 13% and 2% of the UK’s figures respectively. South Korea has been able to control the coronavirus far more competently than any other country, because they acted quickly and clinically. But most notably, they had met this forensic foe before.
The MERS outbreak in South Korea in 2015 caused 186 cases and 38 deaths, a drop in the ocean to what they are experiencing now. Nevertheless, South Korea experienced the effects of an infectious outbreak, and so in early 2020 when COVID-19 began to spread across the world, they were ready. As soon as cases began to be confirmed in South Korea, the government began a large-scale operation with biotech engineers to produce testing kits on a mass scale.
As of the 12th April, South Korea has tested over 500,000 people, roughly double the number of tests confirmed in the UK. These tests are conducted on a mass, non-selective scale, are free of charge and made extremely convenient, with drive-by testing being conducted where the potentially infected are not even required to leave their car.
This widespread testing directly reflects the mantra of this global catastrophe, “test, test, test”, the words of the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. South Korea, unlike any other nation have wasted no time in clamping down on the coronavirus and have inspired countries like Germany and indeed the UK to follow in their footsteps. They have been able physically control and trace the coronavirus, and also evaluate their progress in real time. But this is not the only measure South Korea are taking to suppress the infection rate.
‘Contact tracing’ has also become widespread in South Korea since the outbreak. Seen as controversial due to its invasion of individual privacy, ‘contact tracing’ involves the government retaining a citizen’s personal phone and credit card data, and security footage of that individual, in order to create a timeline of that person’s movements within an environment.
Subsequently, if a citizen does test positive for COVID-19, then the government can look at their previous movements and identify key locations where that citizen may have come into contact with other people for long enough to transmit the coronavirus. This allows the government to concentrate their testing capacities on high-risk areas, based on the data they have retained. This has been proven to be highly effective in South Korea, however from a Western perspective it presents a clear violation of individual liberty and privacy.
Moreover, if a citizen in South Korea does test positive for COVID-19, then they are forced to self-quarantine and download an app that alerts government officials if they move outside of quarantine, for which they will receive a $2500 fine. This again is a highly effective way of suppressing the coronavirus because it physically restricts social movement. However, similar to ‘contact tracing’, it gives enormous power to the state to oversee one’s location and movements.
This is where the philosophical argument emerges. These are novel and unimaginable times for everyone across the world. And with these unimaginable times, it can be argued that we need to adjust the way we live our lives in order to help the world as a whole. Kee B. Park, M.D, a lecturer on global health at Harvard Medical School, argued in a WIRED article that “you have to allow some loss of personal liberties and rights for the good of the whole population”. This is an understandable argument from a medically clinical perspective. In order to survive through this crisis, we need to allow the state more power to track the infection through society, by restricting and monitoring our movement, or by obtaining personal information so a history of COVID-19’s movements can be created.
But will the state return a person’s full privacy and freedom to them when this crisis comes to an end? That is what arguably frightens people more, that they will never regain their full freedom. This is why Western countries have chosen to only adopt the mass-testing protocol but not the mass surveillance and suppression, because Western society can only function if a citizen can retain their freedom and their privacy. The values are intrinsic to the very core of Western philosophy.
The way in which South Korea has suppressed the coronavirus since its inception in the nation has been on the one hand ruthlessly efficient and undeniably successful. But on the other, it has been horribly invasive and dictatorially oppressive. South Korea has managed to save the lives of thousands of people, but in the process of doing so the state has encroached on the core pillars of individual freedom.
The fundamental question is, what is worth more: health or freedom? Would you rather live a healthy slave, or die, but do so as a free citizen?